For a long time, I’ve believed Serena Williams is the best female tennis player in history. At the same time, I’ve felt her dad, Richard, was one of the most obnoxious parents in sports. We detest those gymnastics moms and parents whose kids go to ice skating practice at 4 a.m. before school starts, and the dad who’s screaming at his 5-year-old’s T-ball games like it’s the 7th game of the World Series. It’s not debatable. We all think parents like this are scum. Yet because one of these parents has two daughters that actually ended up in the top of their sport (Venus wasn’t chopped liver)...doesn’t make him less brash or bullying, or a person we should admire for wanting to “keep his daughters off the streets.” This move seems to want to think that the ends do justify the means.
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men, Joe Bell) gives us a sports film that has all the usual beats you’d expect from a rags to riches, underdog sports story.
I’m intrigued to see whether audiences will find Richard Williams (Will Smith) to have been a good father to these girls. Just as I was the only critic who thought Will Smith’s character was a bad father in The Pursuit of Happyness, he’s a bad father, here. He wrote out an 80-page plan for his daughters to succeed in tennis before they were born. He then started coaching them at the age of 4, and also went all Great Santini, making them practice in the rain (what purpose does that serve -- no pun intended -- since tennis matches aren’t played in the rain?). Yet audiences are supposed to hate the fact that the police and child protective services show up at his house.
His wife Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) is a saint to have put up with his shenanigans (the movie doesn’t tell you they divorced in 2002, and he married a woman the same age as Venus).
The five girls are adorable. You love their smiles and personalities. Serena (Demi Singleton) and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) have a great relationship with each other, as well as their three other (half) sisters. Yet with Richard always barking at everyone that he wants them to have a normal childhood and not get burned out -- you wonder why they don’t have other friends, or why he’s making them practice at all hours of the day. So, was I the only person watching this movie who felt the “nosy neighbor” had reasonable concerns for calling the authorities on “king” Richard?
Since the movie was made with the participation of the Williams’ family, it becomes hagiography, and you lose a film that could have had more nuance and been more interesting.
There’s a very telling scene where, after Richard has bugged all the big name tennis coaches to look at his daughters, a few actually do (Tony Goldwyn, Jon Bernthal). Then, when one is coaching them, he keeps interrupting and won't shut up. I’d like to think that Venus and Serena now realize how overbearing their dad was.
Since we know the outcome of the Williams’ sisters, it kills the dramatic tension. And the movie doesn’t address how they never paid coach Rick Macci (who put them up in a home, and fed them, while coaching the girls with an agreement to get 15% of any future earnings, which Macci had to sue for). There’s also a scene involving a gang related shooting that seems too coincidental to possibly be true.
The movie feels longer than it needed to be. Filled with endless lectures by Smith’s character, it becomes hard to watch as he pontificates and pushes his daughters. His character is rather one-note, but it will surely get Smith an Oscar nomination.
For people that don’t know anything about Richard Williams, they’d be surprised to learn the movie left out most of his boorish behavior. He has yelled from the stands, jumped into broadcast booths during telecasts, and blamed racism on “bad” calls by the umpires. And last year when we saw how Serena totally lost it on an umpire, claiming he was racist and hated moms, when she was the one in the wrong -- shows that probably the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.
I coached youth basketball for two years, and a Special Olympics team for five. I wrote a story about crazy soccer moms for the San Diego Reader. I’ve seen just how destructive loud parents can be at practices and games. So you have to give Venus and Serena credit for succeeding in a rich person’s game despite growing up poor in Compton and being treated like a business opportunity by their own father.
A movie should have been made about Serena, and not the tyrannical ‘King’ Richard.
An extra star for using Kris Bowers (Green Book) for the score.
2 stars out of 5.